Reuven Malter, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, mentions that for the first 15 years of his life he did not know Danny. They live close to each other in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but Reuven is Orthodox and Danny is, like many of the residents in the area, Hasidic. Both he and Danny attend Jewish schools, Yeshivas, where they study the Talmud (book of Jewish law). Danny studies in a Yeshiva started by his father.
The mention of Danny in the first sentence indicates that he will be an important character to Reuven. The description of the setting that follows presents the area of Brooklyn as defined by Jewish faith and customs. That they have never interacted suggests the profound separation between their two communities different interpretations of Judaism.
Reuven believes that he and Danny would never have met if it were not for America’s involvement in the Second World War. Jewish parochial schools established sports teams to show that their students were physically fit and ready for war. Reuven is on his school’s softball team, which is about to play the winning team of another neighborhood league.
By stating the reason for their meeting as WWII, Reuven indicates the great influence that the war has had and will have on these boys’ lives. The need to start sports teams also hints at the rest of American society’s belief in Jewish weakness.
Mr. Galanter, Reuven’s coach, leads the team in a pre-game practice. Davey Cantor, a boy on Reuven’s team, tells him that the team they are about to play is filled with “murderers.” Reuven does not take him seriously.
Reuven’s inability to accept Davey’s warning shows his misunderstanding of Danny and the Hasidic team. Just as the rest of society perceives Jews as weak, Danny perceives the even more pious Hasidic players as weak
The other team enters the field wearing traditional Orthodox Jewish clothing, and looking overall very un-athletic. Their coach is a rabbi and asks if they can practice on the field before the game. Mr. Galanter agrees, and the rabbi sits down and starts reading as his team practices. The Hasidic team makes clumsy mistakes as they practice and the players speak to each other in Yiddish. Reuven jokes with Davey that they don’t look like murders, and Davey tells him to just wait for the boy practicing batting: Danny Saunders, Reb Saunders’s son.
The Hasidic team’s practice seems to support Reuven’s interpretation of their skill. Yet Davey’s persistence implies that there is some surprise to come. Davey brings up Danny, who was already introduced in the first line, showing that he will be important in this game as well as in the book as a whole. Danny is also introduced as the son of Reb Saunders: his definition is linked to his father.
The Hasidic team is clumsy, but hits the ball very hard. One opposing batter hits the ball so hard that the line drive hurts Sidney Goldberg when he fields the ball. The batter who hit it races around the bases and, as he runs past second, knocks over Reuven in what appears to be an illegal move. The umpire calls the runner safe at third.
The Hasidic team may not be skilled, but they are clearly rough. Their disregard of the rules and rough play implies that they are determined to win at any cost – they are driven by some higher cause.
Danny comes up to bat next and hits the ball on the third try straight at the pitcher’s head. The pitcher, afraid it could have “killed him.” Danny makes it to second base for a double. As the next batter comes up, Danny asks Reuven if his father is Mr. Malter, who writes about the Talmud. Danny then says that he told his team to “kill you apikorsim” (educated Jews who do not believe in God).
Reuven, like Danny, is now defined by his father. Danny, like Reuven, also proves himself to be the most skilled player on his team. He reveals to Reuven that he and his team intend to crush Reuven’s team because they perceive any Jews who don’t practice Judaism as Hasids do to be unbelievers, and therefore their higher cause for the game is religious.
The game becomes more brutal and Reuven thinks about what his father has told him about strict, Hasidic Jews like Danny Saunders: that they believe that they alone are chosen by God. He gets very angry and begins to feel like the game is a war.
Reuven now has a religious cause as well – to beat the Hasids as punishment for their insistence that only they are real Jews. The game has turned into a war, a battle for identity. Reuven’s father is introduced as a source of knowledge.
Mr. Galanter advises his team to play carefully, and they do. Danny comes back to the plate and hits a high, hard ball that Reuven miraculously catches. Mr. Galanter tells him he deserves a Purple Heart.
Reuven and Danny are again connected through this strong hit and miraculous catch. Mr. Galanter reinforces Reuven’s belief that this game is war.
As the game moves into the last inning, Reuven’s team is leading five to three. Reuven takes over as pitcher. He strikes out the first batter, using his curveball, and then Danny comes to bat. He stares and grins at Reuven. After two strikes and two balls Danny anticipates Reuven’s curveball and hits it hard straight at Reuven. The ball shatters Reuven’s glasses and knocks him over.
This is Danny and Reuven’s faceoff. Danny learns and comes to anticipate Reuven’s pitching style, further linking the two boys. Danny’s hit straight at Reuven implies that he really did want to “kill” him. Without choosing it, they have developed a connection through this violent game.
Mr. Galanter takes Reuven out of the game. Reuven is in great pain but sits on the bench as his team loses. He sits next to the Rabbi who looks at him once and turns away. Mr. Galanter comes over at the end of the game, looks at his face, and rushes him to the hospital.
The Hasidic rabbi’s lack of care at Reuven’s injury shows his disregard for the opposing team. The gravity and brutality of the game has ended only in pain. The team with an extreme religious mission has won.